The amateur theatre tradition in Newfoundland and Labrador extends back into the 18th century, but professional theatre is a relative newcomer. Touring professional theatre companies began to visit St. John's during the 19th century, but the London Theatre Company was the first professional group created to perform in repertory in the city.
From 1951 to 1957, led by actor/manager Leslie Yeo, the company presented over 100 productions during the winter months in the hall at Bishop Feild College. Audiences began to decline, largely because of the advent of television, and the company disbanded in 1957. Most members dispersed across North America, but some remained, notably John Holmes, who worked for CBC, and became an active participant in the amateur scene and theatre reviewer for the Evening Telegram.
The late fifties and the sixties saw an explosion of amateur theatricals, but the early seventies belonged to the emerging professional companies. The Mummers Troupe was founded in 1972, and CODCO and The Newfoundland Travelling Company in 1973. While each company was very different, they came together briefly in 1974 to form the Newfoundland Theatre Company in a short-lived and unsuccessful attempt to secure Canada Council funding. In 1979 the LSPU hall on Victoria Street was wrestled from the Mummers Troupe and placed under the control of a community group, the Resource Centre for the Arts. Rising Tide Theatre was formed in the late 1970s from former members of the Mummers Troupe.
At the end of the exciting and turbulent seventies, more professional companies emerged. In 1979 the west coast became home to the Stephenville Festival and Theatre Newfoundland Labrador, both founded by Maxim Mazumdar. In St. John's in the same year, Beni Malone returned to the province and established his own company, Wonderbolt Productions. All of these companies continue to operate. During the eighties and nineties many companies formed and reformed. Some came together to work on specific projects and others had clear mandates like The Newfoundland Shakespeare Company and Sheila's Brush. The former was devoted to Shakespearean productions while the later turned to local folklore. As well, young companies formed with specific mandates as the professional theatre community continued to grow.
Professional theatre in the nineties remained strong. The emergence of Artistic Fraud in 1994, and First Light Productions in 1997 in some ways marked a new direction for Newfoundland and Labrador professional theatre. Jillian Keiley, Artistic Director of Artistic Fraud, received the Canada Council's prestigious John Hirsch Award in 1998. Two years later, Danielle Irvine, Artistic Director of First Light Productions, received the same national award. When CODCO and The Mummers Troupe exploded onto the stage in the early seventies, the rest of Canada stood in awe of this province's talent. Once again, our young theatre professionals are leading the country as the new generation of professionals are honoured on the national stage.